Bodies of supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi lie on the floor of the El-Iman mosque in Cairo's Nasr City, Egypt, Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Ahmed Gomaa)
UPDATE 10:40 am: President Obama spoke today of the “complexity of the situation” in Egypt. It is, indeed, complex. That’s why, as I wrote in the original post, the administration has been so irresolute in responding the Arab Spring’s events in Egypt since 2011. Today, Obama said he opposes the institution of martial law in Egypt and “strongly” condemned the violent crackdown. And, as expected, he announced the cancellation of a joint exercise with Egypt’s military, which is not exactly a big loss to the generals. The violence, Obama said, “needs to stop” and that the “state of emergency needs to be lifted.” The “cycle of violence and escalation needs to stop,” said Obama. More important, and exactly accurate, is his comment that the United States “cannot determine the future of Egypt.” He complained that both sides blame Washington for supporting the other side, which is the legacy of the fact that the United States actually has little or no influence over both sides.
There’ll be more to come from Washington, but not much that matters.
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ORIGINAL POST: The Egyptian police state is dead! Long live the Egyptian police state!
Things have come nearly full circle in Egypt since 2011, when —in response to a popular uprising—Egypt’s military toppled President Hosni Mubarak and installed a ruling military council. Two years later, after the election of a Muslim Brotherhood president, the military stepped in once again in response to a popular revolt, an uprising that was likely orchestrated by the military from behind the scenes. That allowed Egypt’s armed forces to step intervene directly, with the clear intention of eliminating the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt’s political scene.
The result so far: three massacres, including yesterday’s slaughter in Cairo, where more than 300 died, and in other cities, where another 200 perished. There is, obviously, more to come. The Brothers, whose cult loves martyrs and martyrdom, is promising to take to the streets.
Since the start of Egypt’s Arab Spring—an ironic term now—in 2011, the Obama administration has seemed paralyzed, and for good reason. Most of what’s happened in Egypt since then has unspooled outside of American control and influence, and the White House has tacked this way and that for two years, managing only to convince both the Muslim Brotherhood and the army that it supported the other side. Since the fall of Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president, in early July the administration’s dithering has seemed particularly acute, but it stems from the fact that American influence in the region has fallen dramatically since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. No statement more underlines the poignancy of that reality than the comment yesterday from the White House spokesman, the aptly named Josh Earnest, of whom it can be said that it’s hard to tell if he’s joshing or being earnest:
“We have repeatedly called on the Egyptian military and security forces to show restraint and for the government to respect the universal rights of its citizens.”
True, that. Since the coup, they’ve called repeatedly for everyone in Egypt to be nice to each other. It hasn’t worked. But what leverage does the United States have? Much has been made of the fact that that the Obama administration hasn’t called the July military takeover a coup, since that could trigger the suspension of aid to the Egyptian military under US law. That made the administration look ridiculous, as the transcripts of countless State Department and White House briefings show—but so what? Had the United States cut off aid to the army, nearly all of which has already been delivered for 2013, Egypt’s generals would simply get help from Saudi Arabia and seek arms and support elsewhere, as Pakistan did when the United States cut off aid in the 1980s in response to Pakistan’s bomb. Now, the United States has announced that it will halt joint military exercises with the Egyptian armed forces, hardly an effective action. No doubt, when it wakes up, the administration will condemn the violence, as plenty of other countries have done. And the military will ignore the United States, too. It’s clear that the army has decided to wage total war against the Muslim Brotherhood.
To be truly effective, the United States would have to risk a fundamental break with the military’s main backers in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. Indeed, the United States alienated Riyadh thoroughly in 2003 by overthrowing the government of Iraq and installing a pro-Iranian Shiite-majority government, and it cemented that alienation in 2011 by applauding the toppling of Mubarak, who was seen by Saudi Arabia as a pillar of the pro-Saudi bloc in the Arab world. Cutting of military aid to Egypt, and unleashing anger at Saudi Arabia and its allies—including halting the $60 billion US arms sale to them—would be the right thing to do, but even that won’t have any effect other than erasing the last vestiges of American influence in the region. The Saudis, whose intelligence chief just visited Moscow and whose king has been building ties with China, their main future oil market, will just turn to others, too.
On the other hand, the seeming American complicity in the July coup—even though there’s zero evidence that the United States either orchestrated it or even supported it, other than hoping for the best, including the eventual return of some version of democracy—also carries serious risks. The vaunted American “democracy project” in the region is in tatters, made worse by the tepid response to the July coup. As Bruce Reidel, a former CIA Arabist, told The New York Times:
“If it looks like the U.S. effectively colluded in a counterrevolution, then all the talk about democracy and Islam, about a new American relationship with the Islamic world, will be judged to have been the height of hypocrisy.”
Exactly. Most people in the region didn’t think much of the American “Freedom Agenda” in the region before this anyway (case study: Iraq, 2003–13). Now, not only is the United States losing credibility with the region’s elite (read: Saudi Arabia, Egypt’s army) but with the people, too.
The Times, in reporting on the Obama administration’s response, slyly built opinion into its news analysis by noting that as Egypt burned Obama “was playing golf at a private club” and attending a cocktail party “at the home of a major political donor.” But doing nothing is better than plotting some sort of American “intervention” in the Middle East—either in Egypt, where things have spun out of control, or in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad is winning his civil war, or elsewhere. Recently, where the United States has intervened (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) it hasn’t worked out so well.